Tell me a little about yourself and your working background.

I grew up mostly in Texas – in San Antonio, Houston and then Dallas for a while before heading out West. I went to an audio engineering college for a couple of semesters at 17. At 18 got hired at a recording studio, because I knew how to use computers and timecode with music at the time which was great for the booming rap scene in Houston. Then in my early 20’s, I moved to Dallas to do sound for network news out of the Southwest offices of the 3 major networks.

Is that when you realized you wanted to work in film?

Yes! I remember people saying ‘Do you think you’ll ever switch to camera?’ as if all audio guys were frustrated camera wannabes. I used to always say ‘No. Not at all.’, but there was one time when an NBC producer came down from New York saying that they wanted to add more visual style, especially on the magazine shows like Dateline. Different guys took it different ways. Some ignored it as it’s not news. It actually intrigued me a bit, so I was like, ‘Can I grab the camera and experiment with what the producer was saying?’. I remember taking the cameras and starting to mess with shots like using the equipment carts as dollies and digging out the wide lens adapters and matte boxes and grads out of the storage closet. That turned into becoming obsessed about learning about lighting interviews to make them more interesting or “filmic”, all while still being the audio guy. I had some really great camera partners I worked with who let me be very proactive and supported my curiosity. I think that was the first spark.

What happened next?

A musician friend of mine who had studied acting at Berkeley said, ‘Do you ever think about film?’.  I had just kind of started thinking about it at that point. He said, ‘How about I come in town for a week or two and we film a short play by David Mamet?’, and I said ‘Great! Who’s David Mamet?’.  So, I read David Mamet’s book On Directing, which blew my mind. I sat in a bookstore and read every book on cinematography and directing that I could find. I think the pivotal moment was reading Robert Rodriguez’s Rebel Without a Crew, which is about how he made El Mariachi for $7,000. I called my friend back, and I told him to stay the whole summer and that I would find a little bit of money to somehow fund a Super 16mm camera. I said ‘Let’s shoot an entire feature film!’.  So, he came, and I managed to beg and borrow $18,000 and rented a Super 16mm camera from a private owner. We shot all summer and then spent two years finishing our feature film. I was 26 on our first shoot day, and that was my first transition into film.

Whats that film about?

It’s a semi-autobiographical movie called Forever. It’s a simple love story about 20-somethings – that story of when you think you’ve been with the perfect person for as long as you can remember and talked about marriage, but then you realize you’re both too young, and you feel like you have so much life to still explore and split apart for no reason. The movie follows the separate lives of the star-crossed lovers seeing what life is like without each other until they realize they want each other forever.

So, you were ahead of your time, because thats what every movie at Sundance is about nowadays.

I know! Exactly! The funny thing is that when we were done with the film, we were so sick of it that I didn’t want to go to film festivals with it. I just felt like I wanted to shelve it, walk away from it, and just consider it to be my film school. Especially since at the time almost nothing was digital, so to make film prints and send them to festivals would have been three times more than the cost of filming it in the first place. At the time I had begged some guy to do something called DVD burning so I could show friends and family the film. A friend of mine thought it was a horrible idea for us to do all this work and then just shelve the film, so he secretly submitted the DVD to a film festival in Dallas on my behalf. The film was accepted, and it played at a couple of movie theaters. Audiences laughed at the right spots, and they cried in the right spot, and then it won best dramatic feature. After that happened, I decided to shelve it and get into commercials.

Did you run the camera as well?

Yeah. I had basically no crew. I was the director, the DP, I set up lights, and I had one dedicated guy who stuck around daily who held up the boom mic and ran the DAT. When I started shooting commercials, I basically didn’t know what most of the crew was. One of my first big agency jobs was a national Nokia spot, and I had no AD and no art department, because I didn’t even know those roles existed. I was driving around for days to different stores buying props for the set not knowing there is normally a multi-person team that does that. I DP’d myself for a while at the beginning but soon hired DPs as I think it’s just better to have the time and mental clarity to focus on the story, acting, and having a clear dialog with the agency.

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Scene from a commercial for HEB.

Lets talk about your trajectory into commercials.

At the time when I was doing my movie, I moved in with a paramedic named Tony. He was a great guy who was always throwing these massive parties that took a ton of planning and vision. When I first met him, he was just a roommate and friend, but by the time I was done with my film and knew him better, I suggested he was a natural born film producer and that we should get into commercials together. He was dating a girl who worked for a local commercial director. I was beating myself up trying to shoot a movie with one or two people helping me per day. I would occasionally watch this commercial director work on set, and I saw how much fun he was having with this big crew, and having something new to shoot every couple of weeks. I had been thinking about that a lot – how I liked the idea of commercials and having the variety, and moving quickly. So, Tony and I did a spec commercial using the same film camera that I had rented for my movie. With that and the trailer for my film, we started working for a small, local production company. They gave us our very first shoot for a Texas cable network that had just started. So, that was my first real directing job and the first time I shot on 35mm instead of 16mm. But again it was almost no crew. Then the big transition into working with agencies was when we were hired to shoot for this company that owns a bunch of TV stations around the nation. They normally worked with big agencies, and they normally had big budgets, but then they had a bad quarter and a bad budget, so they called our production company. They said they only had $30,000 for three spots on film turnkey. They wrote some concepts themselves. I re-wrote what they had to be more “show” than “tell” and Tony figured out how to shoot them all within two blocks of each other in downtown Dallas in one day. We did film one-lights and then did all the editing ourselves in a few days. When we showed the work to the client, she had a weird expression when she saw it. I asked her if she liked the spots, and she said, ‘These are great! I’m just wondering why these cost a tenth of the amount I normally pay, and they look the same quality.’. To be fair, it was because we worked for free, and begged for many favors to pull it off. It was completely unsustainable to do that ever again.

Did that lead to more work? 

Luckily we didn’t have to work with that kind of budget again, and everyone later was rewarded with all the work they could handle over the coming years. So, to reward us, the next time the client used a big agency, she insisted that the agency use us instead of doing a standard director search. It was weird at first, as you can imagine. The agency did not like being told by the client that they’re going to be using two kids no one has ever heard of with no reel, which I can understand completely. But we had a great shoot, and we got along really well with the creatives and everyone was very proud of the spots. We learned a massive amount from them in a few weeks about how agency culture works. They toured us around the agency where we met a lot of people, and one person in particular had the balls to hand us a national cellular spot out of the gate. We owe a massive debt to the client and some daring people at the agency who saw something enough in us to give us chances to go to each next level. I could at that point pay back the people who loaned me money for my film and start thinking about directing for a living. That was 15 years ago. I have grey in my beard now!

If people knew how hard it is to get into the business, would they actually continue on? 

I think for every ‘How did you get started?’ question, there’s probably a unique answer. I’m sure it’s different for everyone. I don’t know if the way I got into directing for a living was harder, or typical, or not. Like Robert Rodriguez says, ‘If you want to be a director, pick up a camera and direct. Congrats! You’re now a director. But if you want to make a living out of it, that’s a whole different story”.  I don’t know. For me, making that feature film allowed me to be in the business, because once you do a feature film, it changes your psyche forever. Not only does it train your skills, but more importantly, it changes your perception of what is possible. If I pulled off an entire movie on film with almost no money or crew, then anything can be done after that. The idea of shooting a few commercials for a few days with dozens of crew members and enough money to get the job done seems like a walk in the park by comparison, no matter how complex or big in scope a commercial campaign is. I know some people who’ve had false starts. I wonder if it’s because they started a little late or because once you have a mortgage, a wife and kids, you just don’t have the time to do it right. If you want to learn how to direct, it takes such a long amount of time to shoot a bunch of stuff you hate until that process finally kicks in and you finally figure out what works. There’s a gap between what you think will work great and what actually works. It just takes experience and many failures to get this out of your system before you figure out what an audience perceives as truly entertaining. I did plenty of re-writes and scene re-shoots during the movie going through this. At some point, I think there has to be a major risk of time and money involved for you to be able to do anything really worthwhile.  Technically, it’s probably massively easier these days with cheap digital cameras and the ability to finish it on your iPad. But it doesn’t take away the fact that great storytelling is still a very focused effort.

Whats your take on where this industry is headed?

I don’t know. I mean, there was a concern for a while that people would stop watching commercials with DVRs being so prevalent. It didn’t concern me at all, because no matter where the industry goes, humans want to always watch other humans do things, whether it’s in commercials or whatever. I think the wish for me is that the 30-second format dies, and maybe there will be the 23-second spot, or the perfect 42-second commercial length, or like the BMW films from 10 years ago where you could have these little short films that are a couple of minutes long. I’m kind of excited about it. The other thing I’m excited about is back before DVRs, when you had fewer networks, the audience was captive, which meant that even if someone aired a crap commercial, most people would have to watch it whether they liked it or not. Now, most people have the option to skip it or not watch it, so it behooves everyone, from the agency to the client, to shoot something interesting, novel, and great. I think creativity will simply have to come to the forefront.

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Scene from a commercial for Shell.

Who influenced your style?

Part of it would be my Dad who worked in local TV stations when I was a kid. He would set me up on 3/4” tape decks to play with in the summer. I would try to copy his style of doing news packages he shot and edited that were very visual and usually built around a great music track. Then there’s my single, working Mom who would “babysit” me by dropping me off at movie theaters almost every night in the early 80’s. So, early Spielberg is definitely an influence, Zemekis, Cohen Brothers, Fincher. As far as commercials, I’ve always been a massive fan of Jake Scott, Dante Ariola, Rupert Sanders and lately, Lance Accord. I like the guys who use scope to tell an influential story using logically motivated visuals.  I like epic stories where every shot elevates the story forward.

What is something unique that you bring into a project? 

I feel that I never try to force film techniques onto a script. I don’t like the tail to wag the dog. I always look for the heart of the script and then figure out what’s the best approach and style to visualize it in. I stay very adaptable when I see different scripts, even if clients change their mind. I don’t have a “schtick” that I force onto scripts. At least I don’t think I do! I mostly look for what is the seed of the concept, and find how we can push that idea beyond the bounds of time and money within what the client is going to be comfortable with. I try to push harder than anyone else. I think it also comes down to trying to be a nice, gracious person at the end of the day. There can be a lot of jerks in the business on all sides of the hiring line. It’s a great industry we’re in, and there’s no excuse not to be a happy, grateful team member.

Whats your favorite movie of all time?

Raising Arizona, Raiders of the Lost Ark, or Apocalypse Now. I can’t figure out which one.

 Have you seen anything recently that blew you away?  

Drive, the Ryan Gosling movie from a few years ago.

Name

Chris Smith

Place of Birth

San Antonio, Texas

Occupation

Director - Sugar